Interview with John Robb – Part 2

Interview with John Robb – Part 2
by Killian Laher

No More Workhorse interviewed John Robb, of the Membranes and the Louderthanwar website about his latest book, The Art of Darkness – The History Of Goth

Read Part 1 of our Interview here.

Where does emo come into it?

JR: Emo is like the younger cousin of Goth. I don’t think the bands were that influenced by goth bands musically, it’s more the clothes. I think with the emo, the look is almost more interesting than the music at the time. They were almost like boy bands with a slight darkness, or rockiness.  My Chemical Romance were the best out of that scene. But then the emo itself came out of American hardcore, didn’t it? It was Guy Piccottio who came up with it in the first place.  His band, The Rites of Spring did emotional hardcore, where it was hardcore with emotions put in, not just shouting. By a really curious route, that ends up becoming emo. It’s fascinating how music has weird journeys, it starts in one place and ends up in another. You’ll see so many of them, emo will probably revive itself soon, you see it around town centres. I think the look may be familiar, cribbed off Goth. But then you could argue that Goth was just another stepping stone from stuff going before, right back, the first band to be called gothic was The Doors, back in 1967. The Doors are the templates, aren’t they? Jim Morrison’s baritone croon, the style with the black leather look, the baroque darkness, all their music, it’s all there. When I was growing up, I knew about The Doors because my hippie friends were into them. But most people didn’t really know about The Doors. In America, they were huge because they had number one albums, but in the UK, they only had one top 20 hit (Hello, I Love You), and that only got to number 20. So they were a cult band and when Apocalypse Now came out. that’s what put The Doors smack into the middle of post punk period. I think a lot of people discovered them then and I was wondering if that’s when The Doors influenced post punk and that’s maybe a sparking point for a lot of goth culture.  If you chucked David Bowie in there as well, you got the mix.

I hadn’t heard much of The Doors before that early 90s Oliver Stone movie came out.

JR: It’s not the worst rock movie.  I’ve seen much worse! I mean, it’s not the greatest, but Val Kilmer at least did the Jim Morrison thing to a certain extent. That was the second shot in the arm for The Doors. They weren’t totally unknown. They were known and the Stooges were known, and The Velvets, they’re all key players in what became Goth. I think it was Apocalypse Now that accelerated The Doors’ entry into my generation’s pop culture ‘nous’.

What about now? Do you think the scene is still alive?

JR: The scene is massive. Especially when you go to Europe and America and South America. It’s an interesting thing in the UK. We tend to spark off these youth cultures, they coalesce in the UK. And then we discard them as fast as possible! But the rest of the world runs with it. You go to Europe now, it’s like these massive goth festivals. I know there’s one in Whitby, but the one in Whitby is about 3,000 people.  The ones in Europe are 20,000 people! A lot of the scene now is electronic music, you get very dark electronic music. There are modern bands dotted around the world.

What’s more interesting is that the post-punk period, those bands, the term the young people offer now is ‘Trad Goth’. The Sisters are now looked at as being a Trad Goth band. All those 16, 17, and 18-year-old younger goths are now going back, not totally back because they’ve got their own music. You go to a modern goth club and you hear the electronic goth, dark dancefloor stuff, then after about half an hour the trad goth bands get played.  The Cramps now suddenly have this massive audience in America of 13-year-old kids doing the little Wednesday Addams.  When you actually think about it, The Cramps, even though we did not get the context, they did genuinely seem weird and scary.  But musically they’re not that far from the Rolling Stones, it’s just great rock and roll. They weren’t avantgarde, they were treated as avantgarde. They would never get on daytime radio when I was growing up. And now they could have hits if they were going now. The White Stripes have hits, The Cramps aren’t that far away from that. They were kind of lucky to be around at that time as there was a space for people to embrace them, but unlucky as that space only went so far. Anything outside the world we existed in just wouldn’t get The Cramps. Whereas now 13-year-old kids watching Wednesday would just go, yeah, I totally get that.

How are things with you otherwise? How’s the site (Louder than War) going?

JR: The site is going great. We’ve even got to the point now where we can pay the staff, which is great because it’s hard for websites to make any money. We don’t pay ourselves, we just try and pay everyone else if we can. The web is a tough model to survive on, but it gives us a lot of joy to do it. We can focus on a lot of new music. Obviously, I write about old music in the goth book, but there’s still great music out there as well, new stuff and we try and put a spotlight on it and spark it off. I’m doing an education course and we’re just creating the courses at the moment, so that should be ready to launch sometime this year. There are so many things going on. It’s pretty cool, really.

I think everyone should get paid but I also know there’s not enough money to pay everybody. That’s what I’ve always known in music. I hate it when bands do well and everyone says they’ve sold out, I just don’t get that at all. They gave up their lives to make music. There’s a great quote from Mick Jones in the Clash at a press conference. They go, ‘what do you say about people saying you sold out?’ And he goes, ‘Right. You put a gig on, 3,000 tickets still sell. That sold out.’ Why shouldn’t a great band sell 3,000 tickets for a gig and get paid?

Are you still playing much with the Membranes?

JR: Yeah, we toured all the way up to Christmas, so we were out with the Chameleons and the Stranglers. We went out to Europe. The Brexit thing is just pathetic.  The stuff you have to do now, loads of form-filling. It’s ridiculous. All we want to do is play gigs. It’s not like we’re playing ‘the stadium’.  You know Europe, don’t you, that place where they have tomatoes in shops!

When I talk about the late 70s, the context was, the government was terrible, the country is falling apart and… it’s just like now! Everyone thought there was going to be a nuclear war. We all thought we were going to die by the time we were 25 in a nuclear war. There was a shadowy darkness around postpunk. You think, oh, God, that’s like now! All the music I listened to when I was a kid, all the lyrics are totally out of date, but you put Crass on now or the Clash, or the Pistols. You think, oh, God, that’s like now!

When you were in Dublin last, the Membranes were supporting Mark Lanegan. What are your memories of Mark?

JR: What a great guy he was. Very quiet, he wasn’t like a wild rock and roll guy. He’s quite shy. But the weirdest thing was, we got the tour and he said, ‘I can’t believe a legendary band like you is playing with us’. It’s like when the Stones get Howlin’ Wolf on TV thing with them in America in ’64… he thought we were really legendary! Every night he watched our soundcheck.  He didn’t do his own soundcheck. He would come in, he’d lie across about three chairs watching the whole of our soundcheck and then just go back and look at the tour bus again, and we’re thinking, oh, God, he actually does think we’re pretty good. He actually went from his town, Ellensburg to Seattle to buy one of our records in the 1980s. He’s a massive punk and post punk fan.

When I first met him I interviewed him about music and he was into The Damned and Stranglers. He said, ‘nobody ever asked me about that music’. A lot of people thought he was some hip Americana dude. He likes all that stuff, but he really wanted to talk about all this other stuff. People didn’t realise that before he had long hair, he liked punk, and he liked punk that wasn’t really critically acclaimed, but just really good as well. So all that was really interesting as well. And every night you get to watch this guy, he’s got this amazing voice, what a singer. I actually emailed him the day before he died. We were going to go out and do a show in Porto and I emailed him the arrangements and didn’t hear for about three days. Then I heard from Rob (Marshall), from Humanist, he said Mark died.

It was a shock. He got over the hard times and he was in a good position. I know COVID knocked him flat, but he got over it, I thought, and he got over the drugs bit and everything. He was a nice guy. Obviously, he’s not a goth, but you can’t get any more gothic than Mark, he’s a poet. Also that voice. I mean, when he sang the Joy Division song with Peter Hook, he sounded amazing. Hooky said it’s the closest he felt to Ian Curtis being in the band. And for Mark, that’d be the ultimate compliment, because I think Joy Division is actually his favourite band.

The guy from Earth (Dylan Carlson) turned up at one of the gigs, in Budapest. I love Earth, I think they’re an amazing band. The guy from Earth looks more out there than Mark. They all shared a house, Mark, Dylan and Kurt Cobain. It was a bit of a smack den, they were all wearing wedding dresses, taking heroin and listening to old blues records. It was the most fucked-up mad scene going.  Dylan looked a bit damaged, his skin was a different colour to mine, he looked like shoe leather and had loads of mad jail tattoos. I said, ‘I love your records’. I thought he was going to go yeah, in a deep voice like Mark. He talks in a really high voice! He talks about fairies, and he believes in fairies. He goes around looking at fairies with his partner. She’s a folk singer, and they’re both into fairies and stuff. He’s got over the drugs, but he’s got into folklore and fairies. He loves English folklore. And, like Mark, he’s super intelligent. You know those intelligent people, when they’re really smart, they just fuck themselves up as much as possible!  Because it’s hard to be smart in this world, isn’t it? The world’s so stupid.

Do they just take to drugs to try and make themselves feel average or something? Mark was like that. Very sensitive and very smart, very well read. And Dylan’s the same as well. Dylan’s the only one still with us, making those incredible records.

Have you any more plans to write any more books after this?

JR: Two finished, coming out this year. There’s a collective work of journalism coming out over the summer, and I’ve done a book on Alan McGee. Shaun Ryder did this book a couple of years ago about How to be a Rock Star. I’ve got McGee to do a book about how to run an indie label. I wrote it with him, I interviewed him and put it all together. McGee’s stories are great. I’ve known McGee since before Creation. I knew him when he was just this mad Scottish guy putting gigs on in London.

It was really good fun to do because when you know someone for about 40 years, it’s not catching up with someone, but just typing it up in between. His stories are really funny. We worked some cool stuff out in the book.  The first night he saw Oasis he actually thought that Noel Gallagher was just a kid who gave him a cassette. For that gig, Noel Gallagher would have known Alan McGee was in the crowd. He would have worked it all out. Noel came up to Alan pretending he didn’t know who he was. And then Alan remembered he met him about three times before, briefly, but he had met him. Noel’s a brilliant operator, Noel would have gatecrashed that gig to play Creation Records night not knowing Alan was there but thinking there’s a chance he might be there. It’s weird to think he was that desperate to get a record deal because no one was touching Manchester bands. That’s the first time that’s come out, that Alan knew Noel before.

So that story has got extra layers to it, which is interesting. It’s a great set piece story. It’s classic Alan McGee, it does explain the way he operates. He genuinely will see a band and go, fuck that, best band in the world. I’m signing it right now.

I love his approach, it’s like, this is the best thing ever. Everything else is shit, this is brilliant. I kind of love that extremism.

JR: He’s like that to this day.  Cast have a new one, not hip at all these days but John Power’s a lovely guy. Alan said it’s the best record ever made. And you know what? He’s not hyping it, he believes that. And that’s what’s amazing about Alan. And he goes on instincts and sometimes your instinct’s right and sometimes your instinct’s wrong, but you just go on instincts and that’s it. The lesson that comes out in that book, is always to trust your instinct. Because mostly in the music business some just go, well, what does everyone else think, if I do a version of that it might work? But he just goes in with both feet.

By the way, I’ll be in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast doing an event with Cormac Figgis and Gavin Friday. I love the Virgin Prunes, I think they’re an amazing band. I think there’s genuinely something to be said, that the Virgin Prunes changed Ireland from being stuck as a conservative backwater into a modern country. I think that spark probably happened with them more so than with U2. I think U2, when they became really massive were more like an American band. I think the Virgin Prunes’ completely in your face freakishness really shook things up.

The music scene you have in Dublin now is world-beating. It’s amazing, it’s a great country. I remember the first time I went to Ireland years ago, after the post punk period. When we went outside Dublin it felt like the 1850s. Now when you go to Ireland and it feels… wow.  Dublin is like Manchester, it’s a world city now.

All the Dublin post punk kids, they always have cool hair and mad clothes on, which is ace. I was going to BIMM a few years ago to talk to people. In fact, Grian from Fontaines DC came to see me. I nearly put that first single out two years before it came out. He used to come and see me for advice on how to be in a band. They were going to support the Membranes in Dublin. I found all the emails. I’m glad they didn’t do that because I think they took a much better route. They weren’t a cult band, they were a mainstream band and a completely brilliant one. The Murder Capital are great as well. And Just Mustard, really good band.

John Robb’s book about Goth, The Art of Darkness, can be ordered from https://membranes.bandcamp.com/merch/the-art-of-darkness-the-history-of-goth-john-robb



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